Retail business closures in Singapore hit 10-month high in September

Business cessations in the retail trade sector hit a 10-month high in September 2020, with 457 companies calling it quits. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Home-grown department store Robinsons has become the latest high-profile casualty in a growing list of retailers that the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed.

Business cessations in the retail trade sector hit a 10-month high in September, with 457 companies calling it quits, according to figures from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

Topshop, Esprit and Sportslink were among those that have bowed out or moved their operations online as safety restrictions and tighter purse strings dent store sales.

Another wave of closures is expected after relief to protect qualifying commercial tenants unable to pay rent from eviction and hiked up interest rates ends on Nov 19, said retailers and observers.

Winter wear retailer Universal Traveller, for example, is facing the possibility of folding if it is unable to work out a rental payment plan with landlords for its five outlets.

With travel off the cards for most Singaporeans this year and few tourists in sight, its sales are down by up to 90 per cent. Reserves are running dry for the three-decade-old business, and pivoting is not easy with cash tied up in inventory, chief executive Trey Poh told The Sunday Times.

Mr Terence Yow, a representative of the Singapore Tenants United For Fairness, said the vast majority of commercial tenants have not received much concession from landlords beyond what has been mandated by the Government. "Many of us are fearing strict or harsh landlord action the moment the Government lifts the moratorium," he said.

Mr Yow said retailers are also hoping that safe distancing requirements at malls can be eased to help capture more foot traffic during the year end and Chinese New Year shopping seasons. "It's been a really tough year for all of us and easing these requirements will go a long way to help more front-line businesses survive this crisis," he said.

Ms Christine Li, head of research for Singapore and South-east Asia at Cushman and Wakefield, said that with more casualties expected in the coming months, landlords who need to boost vacancy rates may have to lower their rental expectations and focus on retaining tenants.

Orchard Road has been hit harder than neighbourhood shopping areas, Ms Li noted, with overall prime retail rent in the shopping belt expected to decline by 10 per cent this year, compared with 5 per cent in suburban areas.

Mr Paul Khor, founder of lifestyle brand Actually and outdoor retailer Outside, inside his shop at MArina Sqaure on Oct 31, 2020. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mr Paul Khor, founder of lifestyle brand Actually and outdoor retailer Outside, said his outlets in Paragon and Marina Square have been hard hit by the loss of tourists.

While online sales have tripled to about $60,000 a month with the launch of new e-commerce stores, it has not been enough to cover the more than $1 million sales loss in the wholesale export side of the business, he said.

Local fashion label Sabrinagoh has also been turning to online sales to make up for the drop in footfall to its Orchard Road and Raffles City stores, hiring for positions such as digital content creator. It recently introduced an order-on-demand model, allowing customers to purchase sold-out styles.

"(This) enables us to estimate production quantities and save costs by not building unnecessary inventory and creating waste," said the brand's founder, Ms Sabrina Goh.

Some mall operators are investing in e-commerce platforms to help tenants drive online sales.

Mr Tan Kee Yong, chief operating officer for Frasers Property Retail, said it will launch an e-commerce marketplace for tenants by year end.

Mr Chris Chong, CapitaLand Singapore's managing director for retail, said more than 500 merchants have signed up to its retail and food e-commerce platforms launched in June, which are optional for all tenants and open to non-tenants.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2020, with the headline Retail business closures in Singapore hit 10-month high in September. Subscribe